Mega Rail Link
When it comes to Sino-Pak relations, India hardly ever looks favorably at the coziness between the two countries. In fact, many in India consider Pakistan as China’s Israel in the region. Whenever faced with a difficult situation, Pakistan has always looked to China which almost always responded favorably to Pakistan’s needs. The ‘Beijing bend’ towards Pakistan has a history.
If the pursuit of friendship and cooperation between China and Pakistan has been a never-ending goal, India’s concerns about the two countries have been equally unrelenting. Whether it was the Pak-China demarcation and border agreement signed in 1963 or the construction of the 1300-km-long Karakorum Highway in the 1970s, India has never looked at such developments constructively, always objecting to them for being against Indian interests.
The Sino-Pakistan relations are viewed by India as a relationship that is more anti-Indian and ‘military and strategic oriented’. India believes that the military-to-military contacts between the two countries are too deep. Little doubt that such a belief is based on some solid evidence. Had it not been for China’s military assistance, Pakistan would have never been able to match India’s conventional military capability.
It was China that became the largest supplier of military hardware to Pakistan when the Americans imposed sanctions in the 1990s.
Since then, Pakistan’s missile program took an upward surge. The missile and nuclear capabilities of Pakistan have a lot to do with the technological assistance provided by China. In addition, Pakistan has handed over the control of the Gwadar Port to China – a move that gives tremendous strategic leverage to China, providing it an opening towards the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf as well as a view into India's western coast including Gujarat and Maharashtra.
It is against this backdrop that one should view the reported ‘preliminary research study’ undertaken by China to build an international rail link connecting the Chinese border province of Xinjiang to Pakistan. Acting as the latest strategic irritant, this 1800-km-long China-Pakistan
railway line is slated to be constructed in two phases over a period of the next five years.
In the first phase a 700-kmlong rail link passing through the Karakoram Mountain ranges and the 4000-meters high Khunjareb Pass will be laid. Originating from Kashgar in China, this link will end at Havelian in Pakistan. In phase two, the railway line will be further extended. Passing through Islamabad, Lahore, Multan, Sargodha, Faisalabad and Karachi, it will reach its final destination – the Gwadar Port in Balochistan. The project has a completion time of five years. Obviously India is not happy and views the project as a joint attempt by China and Pakistan to undermine India’s influence in Kashmir.
Since the railway line passes through Azad Kashmir, it would enhance the political and economic power status of China and Pakistan in a disputed territory. From India’s perspective, this will undermine its claim on the Azad Kashmir territory. What makes
The construction of this railway line is going to be a difficult task as it passes through the Karakorum Range which has an altitude of 4000 to 5000 meters above sea level. But then China has already achieved the feat of constructing the world’s highest railway.
the situation more complicated is the fact that China occupies one-fifth of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir which makes it an important third party in the Kashmir dispute. In the 1962 war, China took control of some 38000 sq km of territory in Askai Chin, an area located in the western part of China, adjacent to the Xinjiang province. Pakistan further ceded 5180 sq km of northern Kashmir to Beijing in a border demarcation agreement in 1963.
Technically, the construction of this railway line is going to be a difficult task as it passes through the Karakorum Range which has an altitude of 4000 to 5000 meters above sea level. But then China has already achieved the feat of constructing the world’s highest railway – a 710mile-long line built at a height of 16000 feet that connects China with Tibet.
Will such a railway line usher in a new era of economic resurgence and prosperity in the region? How much damage will the project inflict on Indian interests? These are some of the questions asked by those who consider the commissioning of this railway line as an important game-changer in the region’s future.
Some past ‘Kashmir-specific actions’ by China are the reason that the Indians feel little assured about the true nature of Chinese intentions. In 2008, China started giving stapled visas to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, suggesting that it considered Kashmir as a disputed territory. In September 2010, it refused a visa to Lt. Gen. Jaswal, the head of the Indian Army’s Northern Command, on grounds that he was commanding troops in a disputed area. Recently, China has shown Arunchal Pradesh as its own territory in the latest published maps, to which the government of India has officially protested. China even extended an invitation to Mirwaiz Farooq to visit China. It was deemed as a cold reminder to India of what China could do if the Indians didn't avoid interfering in matters related to Tibet. China has already stationed more than 50,000 troops in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
This proposed rail link between Pakistan and China has assumed immense strategic and military importance for China after the American announcement of the ‘Asia-Pacific Pivot’. It will enhance the status of China which seeks direct access to the Arabian Sea through the Gwadar Port and strategic stability against both the U.S. and Indian navies in the Indian Ocean. Currently, 80 percent of the oil imported by China travels through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. Being the world’s second largest oil consumer and the largest oil importer, China needs to ensure that the oil supply from the Gulf continues into mainland China without going around India. More than anything else, the rail link will result in the loss of the strategic upper hand of the Indians and the Americans in the Arabian Sea.
For Pakistan, both the military and economic benefits of this ambitious project are tremendous. The country can construct and logistically support defense structures all along the railway line in Azad Kashmir. The project is likely to create thousands of jobs and economic activity and will go a long way in accommodating the aggrieved Baloch nationals in mainstream Pakistan. After its completion, Islamabad could actually emerge as the regional hub of economic activity.
However, there will be huge obstacles and challenges for both Beijing and Islamabad in materializing this mega project. Security challenges to the infrastructure and the security of Chinese engineers will be the most important concern. Baloch separatists, who enjoy the support of their external benefactors, may also not want the railway’s commissioning in Balochistan. India would not like the military leverage the railway line will give to Pakistan in quick mobilization and transportation of its military along the 772 km-long LoC between India and Pakistan.
The Asia-Pacific region is on the threshold of a massive change. The China-Pakistan railway line, with all its known and unknown challenges and uncertainties, is a project whose completion will certainly enhance Pakistan's economic stature in the Asia Pacific region.